We remember it all too well from the first lockdown. The obligatory weekly Zoom quizzes and the stream of cultural events held online.
While most of us can head down to the local pub again and delight in the return of good old Sunday quizzes, some people are still stuck at home. And research suggests online cultural activities such as museum tours can significantly improve the mental and physical health of elderly people who are homebound.
“Our study showed that art-based activity may be an effective intervention,” said Dr Olivier Beauchet, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and lead author of a study published in Frontiers in Medicine.
Social isolation and loneliness, which are often more acute in older people, are as bad for health as long-term illness and can lead to premature death. Successive lockdowns during the pandemic only made things worse.
Researchers suggest that just one virtual trip to the museum a week could foster social inclusion and improve the physical and mental wellbeing of seniors.
The team recruited 106 community-dwelling adults aged 65 and older to investigate the potential health benefits of art-based activities. Half of the participants attended weekly online museum tours followed by an informal discussion, while the other half did not participate in any cultural activities before or during the three-month study period.
The people who joined the visits recorded improved feelings of social inclusion, wellbeing and quality of life, as well as reduced physical frailty, compared with those who did not attend the guided tours.
More than 2 million people aged over 75 live alone in England, and more than a million say they sometimes go for more than a month without any social contact, according to the charity Age UK.
“This study shows that with adequate infrastructure, age-friendly access and technical support, digital technology can benefit the mental health and wellbeing of older people,” said Prof Yang Hu, of Lancaster University.
The necessary technical guidance is often lacking, however, which is why virtual contact left older people feeling lonelier than with no contact at all during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, older people are often left to their own devices to navigate technology use,” Hu said. Unprepared and lengthened digital exposure could lead to stress and burnout in people who are not familiar with technology, he added.
Dr Snorri Rafnsson, of the University of West London, said:“With adequate support, the potential of scaling this kind of intervention up is great.”
Not everyone has access to online resources and activities, however. “There are huge barriers for older people living in the community – lack of internet, knowledge and support, financial issues and so on,” Rafnsson said. “Studies show that those who have family around them, and a supportive social network, are more likely to take up and use online technology.”